Diana Butler Bass – Grounded [Feature Review]

December 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

 

Converted to the World

 
A Feature Review of 

Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution
Diana Butler Bass.

Hardback: HaperOne, 2015
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
 
 
Review by Ellen Painter Dollar
 

This review originally appeared in our print magazine.
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I admit it: I’m one of those Christians who rolls my eyes (in my mind, if not on my actual face) at the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” The phrase brings to mind those who claim to find God in a Sunday morning bike ride or a beautiful sunset, but conveniently forget about the fact that faith calls us to commitments that require far more effort— and potentially give far more reward—than the appreciation of beauty or an exercise-induced rush of endorphins. I think of people who appreciate crosses, prayer flags and Tibetan singing bowls as conversation-starting home décor, but have little understanding of the objects’ meaning for believers.

Diana Butler Bass, in her new book Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, has a much rosier view of those who have rejected traditional religion but still claim a desire for spirituality. In fact, Bass believes that the faithful and those who question faith could, together, become part of nothing less than a “reenchantment of the world.” I found that despite my skepticism about those who claim spirituality over religion, Bass is speaking my language.

As the title states, her language is one of groundedness. Bass rejects a traditional “vertical faith,” in which “God exists in holy isolation, untouched by the messiness of creation,” and in which “religion…is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling down below in the world” (12). Rather, Bass argues, we meet God right here in the stuff of life. As someone who more readily finds God in a meal shared around my table, or even in a moment admiring how the morning sunlight hits my table just so than in isolated prayer, I can easily embrace Bass’s vision of a grounded God whom we meet, literally, in the material world.

In the first of two sections, “Natural Habitat,” Bass commits chapters to dirt, water and sky, outlining both the human-generated ecological crises facing each of these primal elements and how scripture and tradition describe them as places where God dwells and can be found by humans. The second section, “Human Geography,” features chapters on roots, home and neighborhood that describe the ways in which human beings are grounded—connected to the earth and to other people via our particular history and in particular places. In the final two chapters, titled “Commons” and “Revelation,” Bass outlines an approach to spirituality and religion—one both fresh and ancient—that will reorient people to find God in the world, not soaring above it, and invite us to rediscover how inspired communal action and the practice of compassion are the only things that can save the world from environmental and geopolitical crises.

Throughout, Bass’s personal anecdotes—about making a home for her young family, exploring her genealogy, and most central, being “converted to the world” and away from a vision of church as primarily a safe place separate from the world— enliven the text. This is no dry theological treatise or utopian manifesto, but the story of a faithful, conflicted woman making sense of her own story and the story of humankind’s relationship with God, including how that story increasingly features those who reject God, or at least religion. While she regularly cites Christian scriptures, her vision of “sacred cosmopolitanism” incorporates people of all faiths and the much-discussed “nones” who do not affiliate with any particular faith.

“Instead of living inside of tight religious boxes,” Bass writes, “many people are experiencing a borderless kind of spiritual awareness that has enabled them to find God in the world of nature and in the geography of human life. Although I have written this from a largely Christian perspective, it is not distinctly Christian” (271). I’d love to ask Bass to more fully articulate an idea she touches on early in the book, about how the Christian vision of a God who suffers as we suffer—the thing that, for me, gives Christianity a special potency—fits in with her vision.

Bass gently chides people like me who accuse those who have rejected religion of being passive and individualistic, choosing the ease of a selffocused life over the challenge of commitment to communities and divine ideals. “Spirituality is not just about sitting in a room encountering a mystical god in meditation or about seeing God in a sunset,” Bass writes. “Awe is the gateway to compassion. It is a deep awareness that we are creators, creators who work with the Creator, in an ongoing project of crafting a world. If we do not like the world or are afraid of it, we have had a hand in that. And if we made a mess, we can clean it up and do better. We are what we make” (275).

I’m hopeful if not entirely convinced, in part because some who reject religion also embrace the notions which Bass criticizes in her chapter on “Roots,” that “newer is better and history is progress.” Barely a week goes by that I, as a Christian writer, don’t get lambasted from some Internet commenter reminding me that my faith is nothing more than old-fashioned, irrational superstition that we postmodern sophisticates can’t possibly tolerate. While I know better than to judge culture by the purveyors of Internet snark, the idea that religion, despite its central role in human history and its dealings with the central questions of human life, has nothing to offer us is prevalent enough to be relevant to the conversation that this book joins and continues.

That said, I was inspired by Bass’s faith in those who claim no faith, who are forging new kinds of grounded communities by growing and selling sustainable food, working for clean water and investing in their neighborhoods. I was heartened by her insistence that those who find God in a sunset or a Sunday morning bike ride may also understand how intimately their own welfare is tied up with the welfare of other people and the earth. I hope many individuals, faithful and not, and religious communities will also be inspired by Bass’s call toward a “spiritual revolution” that involves “the shift from a vertical God to God-with-us.”
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Ellen Painter Dollar writes about faith, family, disability, and ethics on her Patheos blog and for numerous online and print publications. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (WJK,2012).

 

This review originally appeared in our print magazine.
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